Mars Review of Books: Issue 2

A New Type of State, A New Type of Book by Justin Murphy ~hatryx-lastud

Sep 20, 2022 • ~bidbel

The Network State: How to Start a New Country

by Balaji Srinivasan

Independently Published, 474 pp., $9.99


The core thesis of The Network State, the hotly anticipated opus from entrepreneur-theorist Balaji Srinivasan, is that technology now allows for a new kind of sovereign polity. In Srinivasan’s worldview, two technological achievements in particular have unfettered the historical constraints on state-building: global-scale networking and cryptocurrency. Given these watersheds, it is now possible for founders to start new sovereign countries in a fashion analogous to how founders build tech startups.

If successful, the next great statesman of the 21st century will hatch a network state:

A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.

As one moves into the book’s substantive chapters (2–4), one might expect each clause in the main thesis to be examined, modeled, and tested. This is not that kind of book.

Simply put, the book is composed of several dozen—probably hundreds—of brilliant, fascinating, and tantalizing theoretical assertions. Intriguing claims, any one of which would require a whole research article to test, are frequently floated, explained in one to three paragraphs, then promptly considered valid. Constraining our attention to only one chapter, “History as Trajectory,” we can list at least 12 non-obvious theoretical assertions.

The Left and Right libertarians from both parties are likely to line up against the Left and Right authoritarians (Srinivasan’s first realignment theory, in the section “People of God, People of the State, People of the Network”).

  • The Left-Right axis rotates over time.

  • The Left and Right switch places over time, yet their names remain the same.

  • The switching tends to happen gradually, over historical timescales.

  • Except today; we’re now in a realigning time where the switching is more visible.

  • After 1991, the centralized Left gave way to Wokeness, which is decentralized Left.

  • “Two ultra-long-timeframe sine and cosine waves have now shifted into the opposite relative phase.”

  • There has been a “flippening” since 1865, when the Democratic party overturned the Republican party as the ruling class.

  • We are currently living after the completion of this flippening, also referred to as a realignment (a second realignment theory, discussed later in the section, “Left is the New Right is the New Left.”)

  • “If you could plot the geographical, demographic, and ideological coalitions of the two parties over the last 155 years, you’d see a few different staggered sine wave-like phenomena before they snap into the funhouse mirror image of 1865 that is 2021.”

  • China, Russia, and Europe are to the cultural right of America.

  • Once you understand the above analyses, “the ideological shifts become more predictable.”

As you can see, Srinivasan loves poles (Chapter 3 presents a tripolar world order), factions, realignments, and axes (Chapter 4 has two more sections on additional axes). Sadly, however, he does not love these topics enough to consider the scientific literatures around them.

For instance, the concept of political realignment has been studied for many decades. Precious few realignments have occurred in American history and most attempts to generalize about them have failed (Mayhew 2000). The historical literature and more recent statistical methods affirm the consensus that the elections of 1860 and 1932 were realignments (Rhodes 2017). Beyond that, it’s surprisingly hard to find compelling evidence of realignments, let alone “snaps” or “phase shifts” in the history of US politics. It’s possible Srinivasan has identified complex dynamics nobody else has ever been able to demonstrate, but he certainly doesn’t show it. He just makes these claims and moves on.

Something indeed appears to be realigning, but there’s not yet much evidence of Srinivasan’s wishful alliance between the libertarian Left and the libertarian Right (“a possible future where the left- and right-libertarians from both parties line up against the left- and right-authoritarians”). The most robust evidence we have of systematic ideological or party realignment taking place in the advanced Western countries has to do with education: For most of the twentieth century, education was positively correlated with Left voting and now education is negatively correlated with Left voting (Gethin, Martinez-Toledano, and Piketty 2022; Kitschelt and Rehm 2019).

Europe is patently not to the cultural right of America. Srinivasan cites some comments by President of France Emmanuel Macron, along with the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary—piddling references for such a sweeping and implausible assertion. United States citizens are more chauvinist, against homosexuality, in favor of religion, militarily hawkish, and traditionalist than their European counterparts (Pew; World Values Survey).

My intention is not to dwell on these particular claims, but to share a fairly random sample. None of the above claims is particularly load-bearing for Srinivasan’s main thesis, nor are many which I’ve omitted.

Srinivasan is an erudite and discerning thinker, so what should we make of a book filled with such glaringly tendentious claims? To pan it for including some dubious claims would be a mistake, for Srinivasan is not playing the same kind of game that most professional authors play.

The Network State is recommendable as social theory insofar as the inspiring quality of its wildness generally redeems its frequently thin preposterousness, but it is perhaps most remarkable as a work of applied media theory. Srinivasan’s explicit wagers on the future of technology and society are worth knowing, but the book’s implicit wagers about the future of book publishing seem more adequately backed.

One of Srinivasan’s greatest skills is coining conceptual phrases primed for mnemonic and memetic traction. Slavoj Žižek will entertain an audience, but the audience won’t remember much. A TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell will imprint a resonant “takeaway” but quickly become a platitude as it traverses the grapevine. The Network State aims to establish a serious, technical framework for an emerging domain of social engineering, but it also wants public mindshare. Is it possible for one book to enjoy both?

The book bends over backward for mindshare. Srinivasan’s very first words are dedicated to its least sophisticated readers, reassuring them that they can jump right to a one-sentence version of the book. Slightly more patient readers are invited to read a one-thousand-word version of the book. I felt unsure if the book even wanted me to read it, and I wonder if I would have read it cover-to-cover had I not committed to this review. Not for lack of interest or patience, but because the book seemed to tell me there’s no need to continue. Both academic and popular non-fiction books typically hew to certain structural templates, so reading the first chapter closely lets you read the rest of the chapters easily, as the main thesis unfurls. Ironically, the zero-cost spoon-feeding of Srinivasan’s main thesis makes the rest of the book not easier but harder to evaluate. The thesis does not unfurl so much as it morphs and multiplies.

One almost begins to feel that the 400-some pages are there to make the attention-disabled readers trust the one-sentence meme, and the one-sentence meme is there to let the sophisticated readers tell their dumber friends about it.

Srinivasan’s knack for pithy conceptual encoding serves him well in the two media formats through which he is best known: the Tweet and the podcast. His enormous reputation in tech-adjacent circles is largely based on his command of these formats. (Investor Marc Andreessen has said that Srinivasan “has more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area.”)

Though the creativity, originality, and generative quality of Srinivasan’s imaginarium is world-class, it is altogether a different question how these traits translate into a book, especially a book which purports to be both a technical social theory and an empirically plausible playbook. One may wonder if having “more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area” is more of a curse than a blessing for an author of books.

But perhaps the book does not intend to cohere as a traditional treatise? What if the traditional social-scientific treatise is a dead form? If we understand The Network State as a new kind of book—written not by a practitioner of dead forms but by a master of two new, contemporary forms—then it is possible to see the book as an early masterpiece in a genre that doesn’t yet exist.

Srinivasan brings to book authorship the mentality and workflow of the software engineer, referring to the present version of the book as version 1 and promising to “push updates to the book continuously.” If Srinivasan believes that the destiny of public discourse is to go “on chain”—indexed by the immutable, public ledger of a blockchain—then the formal quality of The Network State v1 matters much less than owning its on-chain signature and achieving enough impact to sustain improvements to the book over time. If v10 is a world-class theoretical treatise, and v1 (though imperfect) makes v10 possible—perhaps because v1 was strategically constructed, published early, and spread like wildfire—then v1 becomes, retroactively, an epoch-defining work rather than a clumsy instance of a previous genre.

So if The Network State v1 heralds a new era of autonomous statecraft, should we now brace for the exponential proliferation of secessionary movements, shrouded by privacy tech and programmatic black markets? Probably not, according to Srinivasan, whose picture of the future is ultimately more centrist than cypherpunk. Indeed, if mild-mannered professionals are likely to find The Network State overly anarchic, crypto-radicals will find it overly genteel.

The Network State appears at a time when experimental forms of private governance are all the rage. At least conceptually. Whether they brand themselves as charter cities (e.g. Próspera, a private city founded off the coast of Honduras), startup cities (e.g. Praxis, a startup building a private city through cloud-first community development), decentralized autonomous organizations (e.g. CityDAO, a digital community that owns and governs 40 acres in Wyoming using the Ethereum blockchain), or network states, they all share the intuition that political history is on the brink of a long-awaited technological disruption. These new formations tend to be predicated on the belief that the near future will be more private (closer to corporations than federal agencies), smaller (closer to Rousseau’s Geneva than Napoleon’s France), and more elite than status quo republics (closer to an American country club in the 1940s than a European national revolution in the 1840s).

According to Srinivasan, the present world is characterized by a tripolar order. The US Establishment, the Chinese Communist Party, and Bitcoin (the highest market-cap cryptocurrency) represent three different theses on governance. Readers might expect Srinivasan to favor the fully decentralized protocol as the ne plus ultra of the networked governance model, yet surprisingly he calls for a qualified recentralization (“mass exodus of people from both American Anarchy and Chinese Control to the recentralized center”).

Srinivasan defines the trajectory of a successful network state as culminating in diplomatic recognition by today’s international community of states, but it’s not obvious why diplomatic recognition would matter for a sovereign, self-enforcing, social-physical computer. Srinivasan’s overly generous reverence for the contemporary nation-state leads him to understate precisely what is most drastic about technology’s impending disruption of governance. Namely, that the contemporary nation-state has already been terminally melted by the heat of technological acceleration.

The contemporary nation-state lives entirely off of inherited capital, with enough to provide many more years of comfort to its gerontocratic executors. But well-paid, managed decline must not be mistaken for surviving or functioning. The American governance machine still hums, but so does my 2001 Toyota Camry. To say the emperor has no clothes would be overly generous at a time when the President of the United States struggles to form complete sentences. The emperor has no mind. The Network State is an important book precisely because the nation state is walking dead and few serious authors have dared to integrate the implications faithfully. But for the same reason The Network State feels plausible, it ultimately undershoots the mark. The first successful network state will hardly think to send a Christmas card to the United States government, let alone seek diplomatic recognition.

The most successful network states would likely acquire or otherwise subsume existing national governments. Perhaps the most shrewd of national governments will successfully maneuver for naming rights, such that “the United States” or “El Salvador” could live on, but only by completely submitting to an upstart’s chain.

If zero-knowledge protocols become ubiquitous, we could even imagine network states larger than the United States, which are also effectively invisible to the United States. A zero-knowledge proof lets one party prove to another that some condition is true without having to reveal any of the content or details pertaining to the condition. For instance, I can send my down payment for a new house without the receiver learning anything else about my financial accounts or personal identity. Zero-knowledge proofs were only formalized in the 1980s, and only integrated into blockchains in the 2010s. In a zero-knowledge future, we’re no longer talking about “black markets” (hidden and illicit circuits of exchange beneath the public economy) but imperceptible markets (the public and licit economy becoming illegible).

Ultimately, The Network State is best appreciated as a collection of aphorisms, heuristics, thought experiments, and science-fiction speculations for a new type of founder living on the frontiers of internet culture. As the world’s most influential indie media creators think increasingly like statesmen (e.g. YouTube personality Mr. Beast), and the world’s statesmen think increasingly like indie media creators (e.g. President Trump)), Srinivasan’s loosely organized compendium of hypotheses—independently published on the internet—may turn out be one of the most important non-fiction books published this year.


by Justin Murphy

~hatryx-lastud